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SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE PROPOSED ABOLITION OF THE EXECUTIVE PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM

By Shyamon Jayasinghe, Melbourne

It is reported that the United National Party wants to continue with the Executive Presidential System (EPS). The reason is more than the fact that it was in the first place brought into being by that party. The UNP imagines it can repeat a JR style era of absolute power after the next Presidential elections. On the other hand, the current president wants to abolish it in order to replace it with a new system where she could continue to be at the helm. A sheer crude exercise of will on the part of JR saw the introduction of EPS while a similar exercise of will wants to see its end. Such are the curious ironies of Lankan politics.

JR installed the EPS along with another institution, namely Proportional Representation (PR) also as an exercise of will. On a pure statistical extrapolation he anticipated, and so did the UNP, that they could go on forever like Tennyson’s brook with the dual reform. Even in 1956 when the UNP experienced a total electoral rout, the party would have under a PR scheme retained a formidable number of seats leaving only a narrow gap for the triumphant MEP. Take the recent parliamentary elections. In every District except Mahiyangana the UNFPA had won on a first-past-the post reckoning. However, the UNP managed to retain a close margin with the winner. That is how PR works all over the world. The basic principle underlying proportional representation elections is that all political groups in society get represented in the legislature in proportion to their strength in the electorate.

In order to achieve this representation, all PR systems have certain basic characteristics: First, they all use multi-member electorates. This is unlike the earlier first-past-the post system when Sri Lanka had (barring a few exceptions) just MP for each electoral district, namely the candidate with the highest number of votes.

The second characteristic of all PR systems is that they divide the seats in these multi-member electoral districts according to the proportion of votes received by the various parties or groups running candidates. Thus if the candidates of a party win 40% of the vote in a 10 member district, they receive four of the ten seats -- or 40% of the seats. If another party wins 20% of the vote, they get two seats, and so on.

PR tends to erode the two-party system, bring up minority parties into the fore, and thereby create instability in government. Horse dealings with splinter parties become the order of the day. Witness how the CWC, for instance revels playing the role of power broker although in demographic terms it has just about two per cent of the total population.

The need for a strong centre in the person of an executive president appears to be particularly relevant under such a PR system. One could argue that if not for the office of the executive president, the UNFPA would have collapsed long ago. This explains why the 1978 constitution brought both systems together. Since the two-party line up in a PR is not as strong as in the first-past-the post system strong executive power being invested in the office of president would assist its operational efficacy.

Hence, one cannot understand president CBK’s disinterest in including changes to the PR system in her attempted change over from the executive president system. Perhaps she is focused only on the need for her continuance in office. If given effect to by a referendum, as she is said to be planning, this would simply add a new disastrous dimension to the stability of government. Concomitantly, minority parties would enhance their power-broking potential. In the incurable state of disunity among the major parties that prevails in Lanka the majority community would be further disadvantaged.

I believe the EPS should go. It has concentrated too much power in the centre. Along with other provisions like the immunity of the president, etc little constitutional accountability of the president is provided for by the constitution. For example, the auditor-general has pointed out serious irregularities with regard to the management of the President’s Fund but can action be taken against the President? The former Westminster system did possess adequate powers in the office of the prime minister to run government in a more accountable way. Constitutional powers must be so distributed on the basis of human imperfection and not on the assumption of a perfect human being taking office as president. That is why checks and balances are vital for good governance. In fact, political analysts did observe that the role of the Prime Minister had been evolving toward something like presidential status under the Westminster system. At the same time, checks and balances that are fundamental for safeguarding democratic freedoms continue to prevail under that system. For this reason although the EPS System should go, such constitutional changes must be accompanied simultaneously by changes to the electoral system of PR. A healthy mixture of the PR and first-past-the post may be a good idea.


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